NCAA Tournament: Northwestern’s magical season creates hope for bright future

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By Netta-Lee Lax

“Hail to purple! Hail to white! Hail to thee Northwestern.” – The Northwestern Alma Mater

Northwestern football head coach Pat Fitzgerald waited by the tunnel for his basketball counterpart, Chris Collins, to leave the court after a dramatic loss to No. 1 seed Gonzaga in the second round of the NCAA Tournament. But as he extended his arm to let me pass by, he smiled at me.

In that moment, it felt like he was waiting for me. In that moment I could not hide my allegiance. In that moment as the Northwestern band played the alma mater, I was a Wildcat through and through and so was Fitz, as he’s known by the NU faithful. In that moment, it took a lot of will power not to just hug Fitz and let all of the pent up emotions of the past week out.

The very first story I covered as a student was an attempt by Northwestern’s athletic department to legitimize its men’s basketball program. In 2010, Northwestern hosted its inaugural, and only, Friday Night Hoops open practice at the student gymnasium known as SPAC. That night they held a make-shift dunk contest won by senior Mike Capocci, who barely made the rotation that season. The staff had not let future pros Drew Crawford or John Shurna partake, worried they might injure its best players. A few hours later, Snoop Dogg played a concert with the whole men’s basketball team on stage at the now “old” Welsh-Ryan Arena. Northwestern was trying to mimic programs like Duke, which fills Cameron Indoor when it holds open practices.

Instead, Northwestern emerged looking more like the knock-off barbie dolls at the dollar store with uneven eyes and immobile arms. It was not until last Sunday when Northwestern’s name was physically displayed on the bracket during the selection show that it sunk in that Northwestern now really has a legitimate men’s basketball program.

Over the past seven years as I’ve covered and followed Northwestern basketball, emotion has never been lacking.

When Michael “Juice” Thompson set a scoring record in the 2011 Big Ten Tournament, I could not comprehend a better feeling surrounding the team. The next season when the team collapsed in the same tournament and I entered their somber locker room, I thought the look on former walk-on Reggie Hearn’s face was the lowest I would ever see the team sink. Then this season happened. I was hesitant to buy in, worried that my masochistic basketball tendencies would drive me crazy.

But this was not the Northwestern I had come to know. This was not the Northwestern I had come to love and despise all at once. As Chris Collins noted in a press conference earlier this week, Northwestern fans were not sure how to handle this team.

“Is this the Northwestern we are used to seeing?” senior  Sanjay Lumpkin said, summing it up best. “This has been a magical season.”

It did not sink in that this was real. It did not sink for me until this morning when ESPN’s Mike Greenberg addressed a group of Northwestern alumni at a pep-rally.  As he pointed out that Northwestern was just one of six schools to win a bowl game and make it to the Round of 32 in the NCAA Tournament. It finally hit me. Northwestern is a legitimate Big Ten athletic school.

This week has been filled with a mix of deep grounding breaths, like the look senior Nate Taphorn had on his face when Northwestern went down 28-12 with just under four minutes left in the first half. It maybe began to sink in that this was his last game as a Wildcat when he crouched down along the sideline cheering on his team as they clawed their way back into the game against Gonzaga late in the second half.

This week has been filled with bizarre moments and strange calls. From the intentional foul by Vanderbilt’s Matthew Fisher-Davis when his team was up by one late in the game to the missed goal-tending call that led to a technical on Collins, there was rarely a dull moment.

At times during Saturday’s game against Gonzaga, there was a dreaded sense of familiarity as Northwestern played isolation offense and chucked up contested runners in the lane. But for the most part there was a newness that left most Northwestern fans, clad from head to toe in purple garb, looking at each other and saying, “Wow. This is awesome.”

Chris Collins’ motto is “Pound the Rock.” It comes from the writing of journalist Jacob Riis, who exposed the hardships of tenement life. The passage reads:

When nothing seems to help, I go and look at a stonecutter hammering away at his rock perhaps a hundred times without as much as a crack showing in it. Yet at the hundred and first blow it will split in two, and I know it was not that blow that did it, but all that had gone before.”

After Northwestern’s season-ending loss, redshirt sophomore Vic Law declared, “This is just the building block…this is just the beginning.”

The rock has just begun to show cracks, but it has not yet split. Next year the majority of Northwestern’s players will return to Evanston. The Wildcats will play away from campus as their home arena is renovated. Next year, as Collins explained, Northwestern will be “a different team.” But for Northwestern fans, for the students, for the alumni, for the staff and certainly for the players, this season will always stand alone. This team will forever be the first.

“We made history in a way that has never been done at this university, “ explained Law. “I don’t think I’ll ever forget this for the rest of my life.”

Lumpkin told me after the win against Vanderbilt, “This is why we came here.” Lumpkin was referring to himself and his teammates, both past and present, and their drive to make it to the big dance, but in a way it was also true for the Northwestern fans.

Moments like this are why we are sports fans. Moments like this are why we put ourselves through the pain of watching a team we’ve invested so much energy and emotion in fall apart. Moments like this are what we come for.

So tomorrow I will watch the video of Fitzgerald running into the locker room of a victorious Northwestern men’s basketball team again, and I will think of the elation and the pride. I will think of my alma mater and what it stands for. I will remember why I continue to call myself a Wildcat.

Alma mater, praise be thine, may thy name forever shine.” – Northwestern Alma Mater

Kansas, Gonzaga, Oregon, Xavier eye Final Four with Elite Eight underway

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RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) It’s finally time to award the first spots in the Final Four.

And for the four teams chasing those tickets Saturday, it’s another shot to break through an often frustrating roadblock in the regional finals.

Kansas lost in the Elite Eight last year. So did Oregon, which won the first NCAA Tournament in 1939 but hasn’t pushed past the final eight since.

While those two teams meet in the Midwest Region final in Kansas City, Missouri, the West final in San Jose, California, features two teams – Gonzaga and Xavier – who have never won in this round.

Kansas coach Bill Self called it “the hardest game in the tournament.”

“There’s so much emphasis on the road to the Final Four,” Self said Friday. “It’s almost like the Final Four could be the equivalent of the national championship 30 years ago, with the type of intensity and the type of publicity it gets. … If you get beat in this game, you come just that close to getting to the goal.”

Kansas (31-4) has had the most success of that quartet, though there’s been plenty of frustration, too. The Jayhawks, the Midwest’s No. 1 seed, won the national title under Self in 2008 and went to the title game in 2012. But along the way, there have been four Elite Eight losses under Self – three coming despite carrying a 1-seed.

Kansas is chasing its first Final Four since that 2012 run.

Oregon (32-5), the Midwest’s 3-seed, is in the Elite Eight for the fourth time since the tournament expanded to 64 teams in 1985. The Ducks have lost their last three, including to Kansas in 2002.

In the West, both 1-seed Gonzaga (35-1) and 11th-seeded Xavier (24-13) are each in the regional finals for a third time.

“All the games we feel the pressure to move on, to advance,” Oregon coach Dana Altman said. “This one, a little bit more because that Final Four is the goal of everybody.”

Here are things to know about the NCAA Tournament’s second week:

HEADLINING NAMES: The Midwest final features a national player of the year candidate in Kansas’ Frank Mason III and a preseason Associated Press All-American in Oregon’s Dillon Brooks. Mason, a 5-foot-11 senior, is averaging 20.9 points on 49 percent shooting, while Brooks – a 6-7 junior – is averaging 16.3 points.

LEGACY: Gonzaga’s Few has built a consistent winner in the Pacific Northwest, though that Final Four is the glaring omission from the resume. Still, Few has routinely refused to be consumed by the pursuit.

“It would be awesome for the school and for the Spokane community to be able to feel good about and hang their hat on,” Few said. “But my legacy is going to be about other things, at least as far as I’m concerned.”

SUMNER’S ABSENCE: No one expected Xavier to be here, especially after losing point guard Edmund Sumner to a season-ending knee injury in January. The Musketeers also lost six straight before regrouping to reach the Big East Tournament championship game and now an Elite Eight after upsetting 2-seed Arizona on Thursday night.

“We’re all tough guys,” junior guard J.P. Macura said. “We stuck together. And we’ve been playing tough together. And we’re not really backing down from anybody. And if you have that mentality, you can beat a lot of teams.”

BLUEBOOD BRACKET: Kentucky beat UCLA in the South Region semifinals on Friday night in Memphis, Tennessee, to claim a matchup of teams with a combined 19 NCAA titles. Now the second-seeded Wildcats are preparing for another marquee name in 1-seed North Carolina, which cruised past Butler, on Sunday.

A NEW SEC TOURNAMENT: The Southeastern Conference enters the regional finals standing alone among leagues. The SEC has three of the eight teams still standing with Kentucky, Florida and South Carolina – and is assured at least one Final Four team considering the Gators and Gamecocks play Sunday in the East final.

FINALLY, AN OVERTIME: The Gators’ 84-83 win against Wisconsin on Friday night on Chris Chiozza’s running 3-pointer marked the first overtime game of the tournament. And that came only after Badgers guard Zak Showalter hit an off-balance 3 with 2.5 seconds left in regulation to force the extra period.

FAREWELL: It didn’t take long after UCLA’s loss to Kentucky for star freshman point guard Lonzo Ball to say he was moving on from the college game. He had been considered a likely one-and-done NBA prospect all year and called Friday’s loss “my final game for UCLA.”

Elite Eight betting preview: Gonzaga, Kansas among the weekend favorites

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One trend to take into the Elite Eight is that the Gonzaga Bulldogs and star guard Nigel Williams-Goss rarely lose when they have fresh legs.

The Bulldogs are listed as eight-point favorites against the Xavier Musketeers with a 145.5-point total for their West Region final betting matchup at sportsbooks monitored by OddsShark.com.

Gonzaga is 14-1 straight-up in its last 15 games with one day of rest, as well as 5-0-1 against the spread in its last six games as a favorite of eight or fewer points. Xavier, which will have to break down Gonzaga’s stifling defense in order to get forward Trevon Bluiett his touches, is 5-0 ATS in its last five games as an underdog of eight points or fewer.

The total has gone UNDER in six of Xavier’s last seven games. The total has gone UNDER in six of Gonzaga’s last eight games. Neither team has ever made the Final Four, which is set for next weekend in Glendale, Arizona.

The Kansas Jayhawks are listed as 7-point favorites against the Oregon Ducks with a 156-point total in the Midwest Region final betting matchup. The Jayhawks and Frank Mason III are playing close to home in Kansas City, while Kansas is also 22-2 SU in its last 24 games against the Pacific-12.

Oregon, an athletic team with leaders such as Dillon Brooks, should challenge Kansas’ interior defense. Oregon is 7-3 ATS in its last 10 games against the Big 12. The total has gone OVER in eight of Oregon’s last 10 games.  The total has gone OVER in Kansas’ last five games.

The other two tickets to the Final Four will be awarded on Sunday.

In a betting matchup involving college basketball bluebloods, the North Carolina Tar Heels face the Kentucky Wildcats in the South Region final as 3-point betting favorites.

North Carolina is 7-3 ATS against Kentucky since 2006-07, although the Wildcats have had the better of the matchup more recently. Historically speaking, North Carolina is 7-3 SU and 6-4 ATS in the Elite Eight since 1997. Over that same span, Kentucky is 6-4 SU and 5-5 ATS.

And the Florida Gators and South Carolina Gamecocks meet in an all-Southeastern Conference matchup to decide the East Region final. Florida is 8-2 SU and 6-4 ATS in their last 10 games against the Gamecocks, but all of the Gators’ outright defeats were within the teams’ three most recent meetings. Florida is a 3.5-point betting favorite for the matchup.